The structure of language
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The Structure of Language. Finding Patterns in the Noise. Presented by Cliff Jones, M.A., Linguistics. What Exactly Is Linguistics?. Linguistics is the scientific study of the structure of language.

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The Structure of Language

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The structure of language

The Structure of Language

Finding Patterns in the Noise

Presented by Cliff Jones, M.A., Linguistics


What exactly is linguistics

What Exactly Is Linguistics?

  • Linguistics is the scientific study of the structure of language.

  • It is still a very young discipline, though grammarians and philologists have studied language for centuries.

  • Major branches of linguistics include:

    • Psycholinguistics: How is language processed in the brain?

    • Sociolinguistics: How does society affect language use?

    • Language Acquisition: How are languages learned?

    • Historical Linguistics: How do languages change over time?

    • Computational Linguistics: How can computers process language?

    • Applied Linguistics: How can we use what we have learned?


What is grammar

What Is Grammar?

  • The field of modern linguistics views grammar in a universal perspective, with all languages using essentially the same system.

  • Linguistic analysis is split into several domains:

    • Phonology: What sounds are used, and how are they combined?

    • Morphology: How do roots and affixes combine into words?

    • Syntax: How do words combine into sentences?

    • Discourse: How do sentences combine in speech and writing?

    • Semantics: How is meaning tied to structure?

  • “Grammar” technically includes all of this, but its study tends to focus mainly on syntax and morphology.


Descriptive vs prescriptive grammar

Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Grammar

  • In all areas, linguists are interested indescribing what speakers actually do, notprescribing rules to be followed.

  • Nonstandard dialects are actually more interesting to linguists because they more closely reflect our natural linguistic impulses.

  • According to Derek Bickerton1, creole languages are the best evidence for some sort of universal grammar:

    • Creoles are formed when a generation of children grow up in a linguistically chaotic environment.

    • In the absence of consistent grammatical patterns, young children form phrases in the way that makes sense to them.

    • Creoles around the world share remarkably similar grammar.

    • Signed languages also share similar grammar, presumably because they lack centuries of tradition.


My master s thesis

My Master’s Thesis

  • I noticed a pattern in my two-year-old daughter’s mispronunciation of certain words:

    • pajamas  “too-jamas” /tudʒaməz/

    • again  “too-gain” /tugεn/

    • banana  “too-byana” /tubjanə/

  • I conducted a study at a local preschool in which I recorded children’s pronunciation of words starting with an unstressed syllable.

  • Based on the results, Iposited six phonological elements, which develop in a particular order to produce all the sounds of English.

  • The final product was titled Developmental Variation in Children's Acquisition of Metrical Structure: How Early Treatment of Stressless Syllables Can Inform Phonological Theory2.


Different levels of interpretation

Different Levels of Interpretation


A very simple sentence tree

A Very Simple Sentence Tree


Trees grow more complex

Trees Grow More Complex


And soon get pretty complicated

And Soon Get Pretty Complicated


A simpler representation is needed

A Simpler Representation Is Needed

  • According to William Croft, author of Radical Construction Grammar3, there are really only three universal word types:

    • Nouns: denoting objects, making reference

    • Verbs: denoting actions, forming predicates

    • Adjectives: denoting properties, modifying other elements

  • Building on Croft’s theory, I’ve whittled English grammar down to four basic types of words and phrases:

    • Nominals: nouns, pronouns, determiners . . .

    • Verbals: verbs, modals, predicates . . .

    • Modifiers: adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions . . .

    • Sententials: clauses, interjections . . .


A simple sentence reanalyzed

A Simple Sentence Reanalyzed

The man bit the dog.


A simple sentence reanalyzed1

A Simple Sentence Reanalyzed

The man bit the dog.


A simple sentence reanalyzed2

A Simple Sentence Reanalyzed

The man bit the dog.


A simple sentence reanalyzed3

A Simple Sentence Reanalyzed

The man bit the dog.


A simple sentence reanalyzed4

A Simple Sentence Reanalyzed

The man bit the dog.


And another

. . . And Another

The umpires talked to the players.


And another1

. . . And Another

The umpires talked to the players.


And another2

. . . And Another

The umpires talked to the players.


And another3

. . . And Another

The umpires talked to the players.


And another4

. . . And Another

The umpires talked to the players.


And another5

. . . And Another

The umpires talked to the players.


And a more comple x sentence

. . . And a More Complex Sentence

Bob said the monkey smoked a cigarette yesterday.


And a more comple x sentence1

. . . And a More Complex Sentence

Bob said the monkey smoked a cigarette yesterday.


And a more comple x sentence2

. . . And a More Complex Sentence

Bob said the monkey smoked a cigarette yesterday.


And a more comple x sentence3

. . . And a More Complex Sentence

Bob said the monkey smoked a cigarette yesterday.


And a more comple x sentence4

. . . And a More Complex Sentence

Bob said the monkey smoked a cigarette yesterday.


And a more comple x sentence5

. . . And a More Complex Sentence

Bob said the monkey smoked a cigarette yesterday.


Parallel analysis across languages

Parallel Analysis Across Languages

When the bus stopped, I got off.

Cuando el autobús se detuvo, me bajé.

Als der Bus hielt an, stieg ich aus.


Parallel analysis across languages1

Parallel Analysis Across Languages

When the bus stopped, I got off.

Cuando el autobús se detuvo, me bajé.

Als der Bus hielt an, stieg ich aus.


Parallel analysis across languages2

Parallel Analysis Across Languages

When the bus stopped, I got off.

Cuando el autobús se detuvo, me bajé.

Als der Bus hielt an, stieg ich aus.


Parallel analysis across languages3

Parallel Analysis Across Languages

When the bus stopped, I got off.

Cuando el autobús se detuvo, me bajé.

Als der Bus hielt an, stieg ich aus.


Further reading

Further Reading

  • Bickerton, D. (2008). Bastard tongues: A trailblazing linguist finds clues to our common humanity in the world's lowliest languages. New York: Hill and Wang.

  • Jones, C.S. (2010, January 1). Developmental variation in children's acquisition of metrical structure: How early treatment of stressless syllables can inform phonological theory. ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. Paper AAI1479512.

  • Croft, W. (2001). Radical construction grammar: Syntactic theory in typological perspective. Oxford: Oxford UP.


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